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Flash Basics: Off-Camera Triggering

Flash Basics: Off-Camera Triggering

Written by William Algar-Chuklin

For a natural look and extra versatility in any situation, many photographers choose to shoot flash photography with an off camera flash setup. Let’s have a look at your options from the affordable to the workhorse professional options in today’s article.

The Rundown:

  • Why get your flash off camera?
  • Cheap and easy?
  • More options for those who want greater control

Off camera flash is an important right of passage for many photographers wanting to expand their creative lighting options. I’ve found it a fulfilling endeavour that even 7 years into my photographic adventure, still gives me opportunities to learn new things.

Why off camera?

The main reason I see with exploring off camera flash, is the control it gives you when lighting a subject and scene. You’ll notice that the subject of building a story into your photography comes up again and again, and creative lighting is one of the many tools in a photographers toolbox when crafting a narrative for an image. Whether you're playing with light and shadow, the colours of a scene, or highlighting subjects in your frame, you can use lighting to build a story piece by piece. If you look at lighting through that lens, you can start to appreciate the need for as much freedom and control over lighting in your photograph as possible.

To get you started, it’s good to understand the different options available to take your flash off camera. The main being the cable triggers, optical slave triggers, and wireless radio triggers.

Cable Triggers

Cable triggers are, quite basically, a cable that connects your camera to a flash. These cables can generally range between a meter and a few meters in length.

The most basic of cables is the PC Sync Cord, which was developed around the 1950s, and allows for manual only triggering of off camera flashes. You’ll need a camera and flash that supports PC Sync though, but there are hot shoe adapters that will help you if either is missing that feature.

More advanced TTL hot shoe cables allow for TTL (through the lens) metering information to be transmitted to the slave flash, this can be very useful for easy and automatic control of the light output intensity of any attached flashes.

Personally I have a short TTL hot shoe cable in my flash kit as a backup off camera flash option. They’re extremely reliable and require no set up, other than attaching the camera on one end and a suitable TTL flash on the other.

One downside is the cable clutter that can start happening with more complex lighting setups that have additional flashes attached. It can be a bit of a hazard, and can interfere with your creative freedom.

Optical Triggers

Optical triggers are another common and popular option. Most prosumer and professional level cameras have a pop up flash that can act as a master controller for additional flashes with an optical slave trigger. Triggering is done through a quick flash from the master controller flash, that can set off a manually controlled flash, or send TTL info to a TLL capable optical flash trigger. There are also infrared systems that work in a similar way, that avoid adding the additional light from a master flash controller into the scene.

Metz and hähnel have a good range of affordable to professional flashguns that have one built in, but there are options out there to add an optical slave to any flashgun with a hotshoe.

This can be a great first option, or backup option for your flash kit. It’s fairly reliable, with some minor drawbacks, and can be a really great starting off point for anyone ready to play with off camera flash.

Some drawbacks here include the need for line of sight from the master flash controller to the slaves, as that initial flash from the master is used to trigger the slaves. Also, some professional level cameras have eschewed an inbuilt flash, so a small flash would need to be attached to the camera for this setup to work.

My pro level camera is one of these, so I’ve found the next option to be the best for me.

Wireless Radio Triggers

This is my go to option for off camera flash. Radio triggers, like the hähnel VP F/Trigger can offer the best versatility for controlling off camera flashes. The most feature rich wireless radio triggers can control multiple lights, in multiple lighting groups, avoiding cable clutter and offering an unobtrusive option when shooting.

They also offer long wireless communication distances when controlling lights, and barring any unforeseen radio interference, can be used without the need of line of sight. Many high end radio triggers also offer TTL metering to go with your TTL compatible flashes, and some manufacturers even go so far as to offer cross-brand TTL allowing for different branded TTL systems to work together.

The downside is that some radio triggers use the 2.4GHz wireless spectrum, which can be prone to interference, but in practice this is very uncommon

Signing Off

Off camera flash triggers are an important consideration of a flash camera kit. I hope this gives you a better idea of what’s available now and the possibilities available to the everyday shooter. They’ve been helpful in my photography, and hopefully they’ll be an important part of yours!

If you need more information on Lighting or other accessories, check out more articles on the C.R. Kennedy blog.

William Algar-Chuklin is a night and travel photographer based in Sydney, Australia. You can check out some of his work at walgarch.com and on Flickr